“Our resilience has enabled us to limit the damage of 2020” – Luc Arnouts, Antwerp Port Authority

Even with port operations across the globe taking a hit due to the Black Swan event of 2020, the second largest port in Europe has been able to prove its mettle by seamlessly operating even amidst the turbulent times. Luc Arnouts, Vice President – International Relations and Networks, Antwerp Port Authority, walks us through their upcoming digital solutions, their unwavering grit in maintaining secure volumes and how they are working towards building a sustainable future for the Port of Antwerp.

Port of Antwerp is all set to digitalise the release of Containers through a digital and secure solution known as Certified Pick up from 1 January 2021. How will this guarantee a secure, transparent and optimised release process for incoming containers?

The CPu platform receives and processes container information to generate an encrypted digital key, with which the eventual carrier can pick up the container. This digital key is only created when the final carrier is known. The time between the creation of the digital key and the collection of the container is therefore minimal. It will also be possible to trace which parties were involved in the collection of the container. This allows the competent authorities such as customs and police to access the data exchanged and generated in Certified Pick up within the boundaries of their legal powers. In the longer term, CPu should allow the digital key to be completely eliminated. An identity-based security process with fingerprints or eye scans might be developed. It also simplifies administrative processes, allows employees to work more securely and reduces the turnaround time of import containers in the port. Customs and the police will also be able to operate more efficiently and effectively thanks to CPu.

What has been the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the port operations and container volumes for Port of Antwerp? What measures has the Port Of Antwerp undertaken to ensure smooth operations in the aftermath the disruptions?

The port has remained 100% operational during the coronavirus pandemic. It was a big step that we were recognised as an essential sector in Belgium straight away, playing a crucial role in supplying Belgium and Europe. The port is very proud of its ability to continue handling vessels during the pandemic, with 10,241 seagoing vessels in the first 9 months of 2020, 5% below the same period last year. We had fewer vessels, especially in the second quarter, but in general it was not as bad as we had expected at the beginning of April.  Thanks to container traffic picking up, the impact on the total throughput in Antwerp remains limited. 2020 will certainly not be a record year like the past seven years, but thanks to our resilience and container handling we are able to limit the damage. As for measures, a taskforce including commercial, operational, police, Customs and both Belgian and Dutch authorities, was set up to monitor the situation once a week to see what actions need to be taken.

We also produced communication materials and tool kits to help everyone at the port keep to social distancing and other necessary measures.

How has container handling proved to be instrumental in maintaining status quo amidst declining transshipment of goods flow during the pandemic?

Since July, larger volumes have been recorded in container handling again, after reaching rock bottom in May and June. In September, throughput surpassed 1 million TEU again for the first time since April. In the third quarter, growth occurred mainly in container traffic to the Far East and within Europe. As a result, container traffic remained almost unchanged on an annual basis, with -0.2% in TEU compared to last year. The number of blank sailings has been declining since August. Shipping companies are also organising extra runs outside the regular sailing schedules, which is largely compensating for the effect of the blank sailings. Thanks to this, we were able to limit the damage caused by the decline in the throughput of all goods flows.

As the “Port of the Future” that has realised the importance of Smart Port and Smart Transport, what are the technological trends that you believe can redefine port operations in the coming days?

We see trends in energy transition, mobility transition and digital transition.

  1. Energy: The companies that operate at the port have to take measures to reduce pollution of the air, the water and the soil. They are constantly looking at their transport capabilities, their waste production and their consumption of energy so that they can ferret out more sustainable solutions. Port of Antwerp is experimenting with technologies such as a tug powered by hydrogen, the first in the world, but also Ecluse, a steam network that will supply the heat from six incinerator facilities in the form of steam to the nearby port companies.
  2. Mobility: Drones are becoming increasingly common in our society. And the technology keeps evolving. To make the port area even safer, more efficient and smarter, we want to build a network of autonomous drones together with our community. The Echodrone is an autonomous depth-sounding boat and has been developed to carry out depth measurements in those hard-to-reach areas in the port zone.
  3. Digital: It’s hard to imagine the world without them these days: words such as blockchain, augmented reality, artificial intelligence and machine learning have become woven into the warp and weft of our society. In fact, these technologies of the future may also demonstrate their worth in the port, which is why they are being tested and put to work wherever possible. For example, work is being done on a digital twin of the port, complete with real-time information. We are also looking at how containers and their cargoes can be better secured using blockchain technology. Other technologies we are developing are intelligent wharf walls, smart cameras, automatic image recognition and smart bolt indicators.

This is an abridged version of the original interview that appeared in the November issue of the Logistics Insider magazine. For the complete unedited interview, click here.

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